Sunday, May 06, 2007

First Night in Cairo

The first night that we arrived in Cairo was such a jam-packed experience that I'm not sure that I can do the story justice. You have to imagine police everywhere, hundreds of people packed into the reception area looking towards the customs inspection area, and a lot of speaking in Arabic going on.

The guy who met us at the airport was right there with a big sign that had my name and our school's name written clearly in English, with bold black letters. He was very friendly and immediately helped us all to get our visas. We had been instructed to bring exactly $15.00 (a ten and a five) because getting change would be difficult. Luckily I had two tens because they didn't want to take the first one that I offered them as it was a bit crinkly and less than perfect. We were guided to our luggage pickup location and then handed off to another person who guided us through the throng of eager welcomers to a place outside where we were led by a third person to our bus. The sheer number of people waiting at the airport was unlike anything that I've ever seen in any public space at any time in my life.

The variety of clothing types, the rich and multi-colored fabrics, the chatter in standard Arabic and several different dialects all at once was at once overwhelming and enchanting. There is a unique scent in the air that is not at all unpleasant, just identifiable and special.

The ride in the bus was really extraordinary. We seemed to be going at light speed through a maze of cars, motorcycles and pedestrians. It reminded me of being in a school of small fish that had just been rushed by a group of predators, who themselves were being chased by even larger meat eaters. Motorcycles with Kentucky Fried Chicken and Chili's placards written in Arabic and English, as well as the less recognizable homegrown delivery restaurants, mixed effortlessly with the hordes of black and white taxicabs, private cars driven by jaded-looking older women, and souped up BMW's driven by hip looking twenty-somethings wearing finely tailored suits.

All were driving without stopping or even slowing down at all for the pedestrians who were crossing the tumultuous streets constantly, weaving slowly through the non-stop traffic, seemingly oblivious to the chaos all around them. The drivers didn't pause once, not for the women and children, not for the ambulance wailing close behind. We heard the approaching siren blaring, and eventually a voice over a loud speaker from the ambulance repeating over and over in Arabic: "Move towards the right! Move towards the right! We have injured! Move to the right!" Our taxicab driver explained in dialect that nobody who leaves in an ambulance in Cairo with serious injuries lives to see the hospital, "because, as you can see, the traffic in Cairo is a catastrophe."

We arrived first at the apartment where the women who are with us would be staying. The bus stopped on the side of the street where it joined with another side street. The woman who was responsible for getting us settled into our new homes got out of the bus and motioned for a few of us to start unloading the women's luggage. Visualize this, there were two rows of cars parked along the right side of this street where we stopped. We were stopped basically in what was still a moving lane of traffic, and the only way to get the women's luggage out was to dig it out from under all of the other luggage and pass it out through the back window of the bus, where the bus driver and I would catch it while standing in the street, all the while waving off every car that passed us while the drivers honked madly and swerved unsettlingly into the traffic that was still streaming by at full speed in the other lane.

I now know that a human version of Frogger exists. It starts at about level 140, and you only get one quarter to play. The situation on the roads is absolutely insane. Sometimes I actually want to catch a cab (of which there are always 15 in view either pulling up next to you trying to get your attention, or driving by) just to get across the street.

On that note, I saw an Arabic cartoon version of "The Mummy" today. When the mummy turns himself into a whirlwind and is coming after the archaelogists' sidekick to capture him, the sidekick says to himself "Oh my god, I'd rather ride in a taxi than get caught in that evil wind!" That just about sums it up.

Our initial introduction to our apartments left us in awe of what is possible here with what we would consider to be a relatively small amount of money. They are posh and expansive, with fancy furniture and antique looking hard wood cabinetry along every wall. We have 3 large apartments for our 8 students, and each apartment has 3 large bedrooms, a living room, a "receiving room" a large dining room, a full-size kitchen, a master outside porch overlooking our neighborhood, as well as a private porch attached to each bedroom. Wow! We were blown away.

By the time we got to our rooms we had been traveling for over 25 hours, counting all of our flights and layovers, so we were ready to sink into our large, comfortable beds for a short night's sleep, ready to begin class first thing Sunday morning at 8:30am. (The work week here goes from Sunday = Thursday.)

I awoke at 4:40am that first Sunday morning to the beautiful sound of two muezzins singing out the call to prayer from two different locations, one very close, and one off in the distance. It seemed that they were purposely harmonizing with each other from miles apart. The sound was purely magical. That first call was followed by calls from gradually more distant locations, until about 10 minutes later, the last gorgeous notes rose gently into the air, replaced by the lively and energetic sounds of the waking birds. More bird sounds than I've heard in any city at one time, more birds than I heard on those first misty, deep green Virginia mornings that enchanted my teenage self two decades ago.
So passed the first night, and the last week has been seven days filled with more firsts than seconds. There are stories to tell, and memories to last a lifetime.